Ives Completes His Fourth Symphony

Charles Ives’s Fourth Symphony typified his unique approach to music as a combination of heterogeneous elements.

Summary of Event

Charles Ives’s career is so filled with distinctively American touches as to make him seem almost a textbook example of an American composer. Ives’s work was almost completely neglected during his most creative period, 1908-1917; even at the time of his death in 1954, his music had only begun to generate professional respect and had not aroused any substantial popular interest. Yet by the time of the premiere performance of the entire Fourth Symphony in 1965, eleven years after his death, Ives had become something of a popular icon, and by the end of the twentieth century his music enjoyed the kind of respect and enthusiasm that is rarely granted to a serious American composer. Music;symphonic
Symphonic music
Fourth Symphony (Ives)
[kw]Ives Completes His Fourth Symphony (1916)
[kw]Fourth Symphony, Ives Completes His (1916)
[kw]Symphony, Ives Completes His Fourth (1916)
Symphonic music
Fourth Symphony (Ives)
[g]United States;1916: Ives Completes His Fourth Symphony[03930]
[c]Music;1916: Ives Completes His Fourth Symphony[03930]
Ives, Charles
Cowell, Henry

From his father, George Ives, who was the most important influence in his creative life, Charles Ives learned a deep respect for musical experimentation, such as the playing of pieces in remote harmonies simultaneously. From Horatio Parker, Parker, Horatio his composition professor at Yale University, Ives gained respect for the European symphonic tradition and learned well the academic rules of music, which in some of his compositions he nevertheless violated. Although he spent years as a hardworking church organist, Ives did not aspire to pursue either an academic career in music, like his mentor Parker, or a professional career as a composer or performer. As his early biographer and friend Henry Cowell noted in Charles Ives and His Music (1955), “The period of Ives’s most strenuous devotion to his business was also the period of his most energetic creative production of music.”

Critics agree that Ives enjoyed his period of maximum creativity in the years 1908 to 1917, beginning with his marriage to Harmony Twichell in June, 1908, and ending when the composer suffered the first of a series of heart attacks. Ives composed his last works in the years after World War I, from 1918 to 1926, and then spent the rest of his long life “tinkering” (as J. Peter Burkholder describes it in his 1985 study Charles Ives: The Ideas Behind the Music) with the vast amount of music he had already produced. Ives ceased composing, but he did not stop refining and advocating his works.

Ives composed his Fourth Symphony over the years 1910 to 1916, which neatly coincided with the period of his greatest musical creativity. The symphony utilizes nearly all the characteristics that have come to be celebrated in Ives’s music: powerful contrasts and mood changes, collages, multiple tempi, improvisation, and indeterminacy (in which some orchestral voices enter and keep time at a pace independent of that of the other instruments), polyharmonies, and microtones. Possibly the most famous characteristic of Ives’s music is abundantly evident in the symphony: the use—and collision and transformation—of hymn tunes and popular songs.

The Fourth Symphony opens with a choral statement of a Protestant hymn that begins, “Watchman, tell us of the night/ What the signs of promise are.” The short first movement, which functions as a prelude to the remainder of the symphony more than as a traditional first movement in the style of a European symphony, poses a metaphysical question: When is the night coming, and what are the signs of promise? As the symphony progresses, the existential depth of this initial question becomes more pronounced. The work also contains quotations from or references to at least thirty other identifiable sources, however, from Protestant hymns such as “Beulah Land” and “Nearer My God to Thee” to popular songs such as Stephen Foster’s “Massa’s in the Cold, Cold Ground.”

Like Claude Debussy, his French near contemporary, Ives sought to paint a musical portrait of life as it is actually experienced, with the mind assailed by a variety of sounds and musical impressions. Ives never got over the excitement of hearing two bands in a parade playing at once, with the subsequent overlap and spontaneous harmonic possibilities. He sought to convey how the mind is filled with snatches of ideas and memories and is constantly assailed by new sensations.

As is often the case with Ives’s larger works, the Fourth Symphony features a variety of contrasts, in volume, mood, rhythm, and deployment of musical forces. The first and fourth movements serve as the question and a tentative answer; the first movement is interrogatory and chromatic, whereas the third movement is restrained and diatonic. The second and fourth movements are highly complicated and require huge orchestral forces, whereas the third movement is relatively simple and musically conservative.

The third movement is largely a fugue, based on “The Missionary Hymn” (“From Greenland’s Icy Mountains”) and concluding with an unexpected quotation of “Let heaven and nature sing” from the Christmas carol “Joy to the World.” The third movement serves as a moment of religious introspection amid the swirl and anxiety of the second and fourth movements. The second movement is a ferocious assault on the capacity of the listener to catch multiple musical quotations and to reconceive them as part of a harmonious, challenging whole. The fourth movement, which requires an even wider variety of instrumental forces, has the effect of a deeply considered reflection on the initial question about “what the signs of promise are,” and both the second and fourth movements require the services of a second and possible third conductor to manage the dizzying rhythmic complexity of the score. The final effect of Ives’s Fourth Symphony is that of a profoundly exhausting but exhilarating spiritual struggle in which the complex musical quotations finally yield to an impression of renewal and reinvigoration.


In a way, Ives seems too exemplary to have been real. Like a Romantic poet feverishly tossing completed pages over his shoulder, Ives proved to be an inspirational figure to American composers. He came to be seen as an archetype of the rugged American individualist (he was a life insurance executive with a totally unpredictable alternative life as an experimental composer) and as the last New England Transcendentalist. He was a prodigiously gifted composer of some watershed works in the history of European and American music, and he composed works with rapidity and skill.

American audiences tend to respond enthusiastically to Ives’s obsessive use of musical quotations, pointing out the phrases as they occur; European critics, by contrast, often criticize Ives’s use of this material, hinting that it reveals a lack of imagination on the composer’s part. The English critic Peter Jona Korn, writing as late as 1967, argued that “the quality of Ives’s music is, to say the least, highly inconsistent. He mixes many techniques, and he masters none.” Yet composers still profit from Ives’s experiment, and the integrity of his musical vision has made him an exemplary figure of the disciplined, incorruptible, visionary artist. What Ives’s music supplies to his American audiences is the nostalgic pleasure of past memories as retrieved through his artistry.

Ives made few efforts to have his work performed in his lifetime. When he did take the trouble to have his work edited and published, as with his 114 Songs (1922), he was emphatic that it was not with the intention of making money. When the second movement of the Fourth Symphony appeared in the musical journal New Music in January, 1929, it was the first time a composition of Ives’s had been published, as opposed to printed and distributed privately. Given that this movement is one of the most complex and difficult of Ives’s scores, it is hard to imagine the impression it must have left in 1929. Yet it was performed, under the direction of the distinguished British conductor Eugene Goossens, in January, 1927, at Pro Musica’s International Referendum Concert. The piece was reviewed, with some incomprehension and some enthusiasm, by the major music critics of the time, such as Lawrence Gilman and Olin Downes.

The premiere of the entire work did not take place until more than a decade after Ives’s death, when Leopold Stokowski Stokowski, Leopold was encouraged to conduct the Fourth Symphony at a triumphant performance by the American Symphony Orchestra in New York on April 26, 1965. Stokowski’s recording of the work generated a new admiration for Ives and new enthusiasm for a previously unknown American musical masterpiece.

The award to Ives of a Pulitzer Prize for his Third Symphony in 1947, almost a half century after its composition, now seems like an embarrassment, so belated was the recognition for America’s greatest serious composer. By the mid-1960’s, after Stokowski’s premiere performance of the Fourth Symphony and his recording of it in 1965, Charles Ives became something of a cultural icon. The prestige of Ives continued to climb, as the importance of his musical experiments were increasingly recognized and made part of the familiar idiom of serious American music.

The scope and complexity of the Fourth Symphony also came to be seen as part of the late Romantic effort to capture the range and variety of the human experience in musical terms. The affinity of the Fourth Symphony to such other monumental late Romantic scores as Arnold Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder (1900-1911) and Gustav Mahler’s Symphony of a Thousand (1906-1907) thus became clearer. Ives was increasingly honored for having subsumed the finest aspects of the European musical tradition into the American experience and for having recognized and honored the American roots of his aesthetic experience with honesty, vigor, and no trace of sentimentality. That Ives’s music was virtually unknown during the most creative phase of his long career has led some observers to comment on the missed opportunities for growth suffered by the serious music tradition because of its indifference to Ives’s genius. Music;symphonic
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Fourth Symphony (Ives)

Further Reading

  • Block, Geoffrey, and J. Peter Burkholder, eds. Charles Ives and the Classical Tradition. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1996. Essays examine the influences on Ives’s work of the European classical tradition and argue that Ives extended rather than rejected that tradition.
  • Burkholder, J. Peter. Charles Ives: The Ideas Behind the Music. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1985. Interesting defense of Ives the thinker. Takes seriously Ives’s elaborate statements of his theories of music and places Ives squarely within the tradition of New England Transcendentalism.
  • _______, ed. Charles Ives and His World. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1996. Contributors to this collection explore Ives’s life and work from several perspectives, including discussion of Ives’s relationship to European music, his political orientation, and his career in insurance. Includes a collection of Ives’s personal correspondence and a selection of reviews of Ives’s work published during his lifetime.
  • Cowell, Henry, and Sidney Cowell. Charles Ives and His Music. Rev. ed. London: Oxford University Press, 1969. Provides a very sympathetic assessment of Ives’s music. First published just after the composer’s death, this book helped to spark initial interest in Ives’s music that blossomed into remarkable enthusiasm in the 1960’s.
  • Korn, Peter Jona. “The Symphony in America.” In Elgar to the Present Day. Vol. 2 in The Symphony, edited by Robert Simpson. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, 1967. Typifies the all-too-common British and European incomprehension of the nature of Ives’s musical experimentation. Unfortunately included in an influential standard guide to the symphonic tradition.
  • Reilly, F. Warren, ed. South Florida’s Historic Ives Festival, 1974-1976. Coral Gables, Fla.: University of Miami, 1976. Brochure on the occasion of the Ives centennial contains essays on a variety of topics, from Ives’s innovations as an insurance broker to his use of popular songs.

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